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Struggling Victoria’s Secret sold as women demand comfort

FILE- In this Nov. 8, 2018, file photo model Devon Windsor walks the runway during the 2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Pier 94 in New York. Victoria's Secret's owner, L Brands, said that the private-equity firm Sycamore Brands will buy 55% of Victoria's Secret for about $525 million. Victoria's Secret will become a private company. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

NEW YORK — Victoria’s Secret, which once defined sexy with its leggy supermodels in their lacy bras and oversized angel wings, has a new owner.

Now, the big question is whether the once sought after but now struggling brand can be reinvented for a new generation of women demanding more comfortable styles.

The company’s owner, L Brands, said Thursday that the private-equity firm Sycamore Partners will buy 55% of Victoria’s Secret for about $525 million. The Columbus, Ohio, company will keep the remaining 45% stake. After the sale, L Brands will be left with its Bath & Body Works chain and Victoria’s Secret will become a private company.

Les Wexner, 82, who founded the parent company in 1963, will step down as chairman and CEO after the transaction is completed and become chairman emeritus. Wexner has been grappling with his own troubles, including questions over his ties to the late financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was indicted on sex-trafficking charges.

The selling price for Victoria’s Secret signifies a marked decline for a brand with hundreds of stores that booked about $7 billion in revenue last year. Shares of L Brands slid more than 7% Thursday though they recovered somewhat by late afternoon. Shares were down nearly 4%, or 88 cents, to close at $23.42.

In a statement, Wexner said the deal will provide the best path to restoring Victoria’s Secret’s businesses to their ”historical levels of profitability and growth.” The deal will also allow the company to reduce debt and Sycamore will bring a “fresh perspective and greater focus to the business, ” he said.

To successfully turn around Victoria’s Secret, Sycamore will need to change up the corporate culture, reinvent the fashions and redesign the stores to make them more contemporary, experts say. Sycamore manages a $10 billion portfolio including such struggling retailers as Belk, Hot Topic and Talbots.

The management team at Victoria’s Secret essentially was designing what men want, not what women want, said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail.

“The brand is very embedded in the past,” said Saunders. “It was always about men feeling good. It should be about making women feel good about themselves.”

Victoria’s Secret had a long unparalleled run of success. The brand was founded by the late Roy Larson Raymond in the late 1970s after he felt embarrassed about purchasing lingerie for his wife. Wexner, the founder of the then Limited Stores Inc., purchased Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and turned it into a powerful retail force. By the mid-1990s, Victoria’s Secret lit up runways and later filled the internet with its supermodels and an annual television special that mixed fashion, beauty and music.

That glamour has faded and so have sales in the last few years. The show was canceled last year, and shares of Victoria Secret’s parent have gone from triple digits less than five years ago to a quarter of that today.

Victoria’s Secret struggled to keep up with competition and failed to respond to changing tastes among women who want more comfortable styles. Rivals like Adore Me and ThirdLove, which have sprouted up online and marketed themselves heavily on social media platforms like Instagram, have focused on fit and comfort while offering more options for different body types.

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